Changing Institutional Barriers for Women

Before college, when I thought about women in the mid-1900s, I thought about Lucy Ricardo and her contemporaries staying in the home with their husbands working out in the city. The glamorous city life for women revolved around the home, according to the media. When I actually studied the twentieth century and looked at the statistics, I was surprised to find that while women were a smaller percent of the workforce, they still had a strong presence. I Love Lucy and Leave it to Beaver portrayed the “ideal” lifestyle for the time, what the everyday family wanted. In reality, working class families had always needed two incomes, or perhaps the mother had to work because the father had died. The true division of labor is that a stay at home wife/mother was a luxury; it was a status symbol to show that the man could provide enough for the family that the woman did not have to work.

In class, we briefly discussed how the idea of “separate spheres” never really applied to working class women. They have always worked. They never had the choice to stay at home. The first working positions I think of after the Industrial Revolution is factory jobs. World War II helped bring the idea of women in the workforce to the mainstream. Many men went off to war, and the demand for goods increased. Women were hired to fill the production needs, but most were supposed to be holding the jobs until the men came back.


The systems put in place in cities by men, that favored men, started to change. This change illustrates Sophie Watson’s analysis of institutional barriers for women. In City A/Genders, she writes, “…the problem was seen to lie with the ‘gatekeepers’ in the urban system who allocated public goods, such as housing or finance, according to prejudice or discriminatory practices” (238). Women were given less chances for advancement. Examining the growth of women in the workforce after World War II shows how the system slowly changed. The stars aligned so that supply, demand, and lack of workers allowed women to experience the workforce in unprecedented numbers, and they were not willing to let it go after they had it.


This graph illustrates how the gradual increase of women in the workforce coincides with the status quo slowly changing. It is taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and projects forward to 2050. To put this information into context, World War II ended in 1945. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination based on race and gender when hiring. One event did not suddenly change everything in the workforce. Both of these events contributed significantly, and the graph clearly shows a slow growth, not a sudden peak after either event. The fact that shows the evening of the institutional barriers to me is that not only does the line for women rise but also the line for men declines. Men still dominate the workforce, but the graph shows that they are no longer the only ones controlling it.


Watson, Sophie. “City A/Genders.” The Blackwell City Reader. Ed. Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 237-242. Print.

Propaganda Poster Link

Graph Link (the graph used is on page 23)


1 Comment

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One response to “Changing Institutional Barriers for Women

  1. The graph really helps put into perspective the idea that some social issues changes gradually over time rather than making a cataclysmic shift in a short period. One of the factors that I know about is the move away from assuming that women would only work until they got married. That’s an issue that the heroine in Skyscraper, the novel we’re reading next week, still has to face. I wonder if you’ll want to apply the ideas above to that text.

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